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N Krishnaji—A Tribute


NKrishnaji and I were classmates in 1959 at the Indian Statistical Institute (ISI) Kolkata.

Only on 14 September I heard: “… his doctors ultimately traced his problem to a very early stage cancer in a highly localised small area … his age being a bar, doctors advised against any surgical intervention.” I was unofficially appointed to carry this news, to all our ISI batchmates. So, I did and felt I was conveying a very bad news and said: “But I must admit my email only reflects my fears and not what I should have ideally communicated.” To this Krishnaji replied (18 September):

Susan Sontag the famous New York Reviewer of books wrote some powerful essays during the 1970s on the subject, concentrating on tuberculosis (TB) and cancer and reactions to their specific occurrences. She had, before succumbing to cancer herself, brought together a collection of relevant articles under the title: “Illness as Metaphor.” To put her theory in very simple terms she refers to TB as the most feared disease well into the 20th century. The fear begins at the family level and keeps expanding to communities and population groups and, in the case of TB, it began to abate only when the knowledge that TB is fully curable became popular. No such luck with cancer because people are convinced about … even the best minds in the biological profession have but a few clues: a virus here, a protein or hormone there, the glimmer of a gene there, etc. Sorry for having bored you with this arcane stuff.

This is Krishnaji, even at that last stage, looking at the problem squarely and deeply and throwing some research insights into it to be useful for others.

Krishnaji was a unique scholar. There are assuming scholars and unassuming scholars, and he belongs to the latter. There are theoreticians and there are applied people, and he was both. I recall that he was one of the vocal critics of an accusation levelled by Dharma Kumar that EPW had a left bias. Is having empathy for the problems of the agrarian poor always to be wrongly equated to have a left bias? If we examine Krishnaji’s writings you will see his deep concern for the distribution of the landholdings, what is happening to that distribution over time, what factors affect it, etc. His concern for the problems of the poor and oppressed was so deep that he had to swim widely across disciplines to find answers. Thus he had published in anthropology (Current Anthropology from University of Chicago), Econometrica, Annals of Mathematical Statistics, Epw, Journal of Peasant Studies, and Indian Journal of Agricultural Economics. He did not fear taking a political stand if it was necessary to address the problem. He could be as theoretical as it was necessary. To understand income distribution with under-reported incomes, he went deeper into the mathematical characterisation of a distribution with the characteristics he observed in actual data and showed that those are the necessary and sufficient conditions for the data to follow a Pareto distribution. This was a paper published in Econometrica, the top journal in economic theory. He had another paper on characterisation of an exponential distribution, and it was published in the Annals of Mathematical Statistics, and it drew attention from theoretical statisticians working on characterisation problems. Some of the stalwarts who addressed such problems were Ragnar Frisch in 1936 and C R Rao in 1944. On the distribution of the landholdings and their trend, he goes to the extent of theories advanced by Thomas Robert Malthus and Karl Marx, shows where they are similar and where they differ (Current Anthropology).

Krishnaji is addressed as Professor Krishnaji and not as Dr Krishnaji for a valid reason. While people strive to get a PhD degree to establish an academic standing as a professor, he did not get one. He did not need one, the same way as some of the well-known British economists (Joan Robinson and Nicholas Kaldor) of a generation prior to ours, did not get PhD degrees. He told me that when he was a professor at the Indian Institute of Management Kolkata he approached C R Rao for enrolling as a part-time external PhD scholar. Rao did not agree, as the rules of the ISI did not permit external part-time enrolment. But, Krishnaji felt that if he wished he could have made an exception for him or could have changed the rules. After that experience, he decided not to pursue that route again.

He was lucky to be at the right places at the right times to benefit others and to benefit from others. Krishnaji was with Jati K Sengupta when the latter was the Director of IIM Kolkata and with T N Krishnan and K N Raj at the Centre for Development Studies (CDS) where he did excellent work. Perhaps if we had asked him what period and institution was most significant in his professional life, he would have answered the period when he was at the CDS. Joan Robinson was visiting CDS at that time. He had a big constellation of eminent colleagues and students at the CDS. His work with T N Krishnan on terms of trade and business cycles in India is a unique study, and is an underworked area.

Krishnaji’s research has a lot of lessons for young research scholars: (i) choose a problem that stands on the same ground that you stand on, (ii) understand the problem clearly by reading all the necessary published literature on the topic, and if it needs an interdisciplinary approach, let it be so, (iii) go deeper into the problem by looking at the available data, (iv) analyse the data with the simplest possible statistical tools to be able to explain the findings widely, including to the policymakers, and (v) to go deeper into the problem, go deeper both into mathematical theorising as well as more sophisticated data analysis.

In our ISI batch, he was a few years older than the rest of us and we used to treat him as an elder colleague for advice. While I addressed him as Krishnaji, my friend P V A Rama Rao addressed him as Anna Garu (elder brother). During the examinations, he would walk out of the examination room after half an hour for his smoke, and would not return, and yet get the top marks in the examination. While writing this, I remember these incidents vividly: On many Friday evenings, we used to jump into Sham Bazar Bus No 78 to go to Esplanade and watch movies together. During our vacations, we used to travel together to Andhra Pradesh on the Howrah–Madras Mail. Finally, I close by expressing how fortunate I was to have him as a friend and guide. May his soul have a place in heaven, among gods and angels, similar to the endearing place he had among all of us.

T Krishna Kumar


Updated On : 15th Nov, 2019


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